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GUEST EDITORIAL: Squelching protest in the name of public peace is chilling and un-American

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The words from White House advisor Stephen Miller during Sunday’s “Face the Nation” program, in which he defended President Trump’s dreadful executive orders on immigration, were straight out of “The Idiot’s Guide to Authoritarianism”: “Our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see, as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”

The executive’s power to implement immigration policy is indeed substantial. But should it be unquestioned? Of course not, especially when the policy runs hard up against constitutional protections. It is a fundamental principle of American democracy that the policies and statements of a president — any president — should and must be second-guessed by citizens, experts, artists, stakeholders and, of course, the media. Political protest is part of the lifeblood of American democracy, from the Boston Tea Party to the modern-day tea party to the Women’s March on Washington last month.

Miller’s comment should have sent a chill down the spines of civil libertarians across the political spectrum. And it’s not out of tone with what others in the administration are saying. Trump strategist Stephen Bannon, for instance, called the media “the opposition party.” Trump himself tweeted nastily about a judge after a ruling didn’t go his way, and he has sought to delegitimize news reporting about his administration by shouting “fake news” when he reads articles he doesn’t agree with.

Legislatures in at least 10 states are contemplating laws aimed at squelching public protests. One law in Indiana would require police to use “any means necessary” to clear protesters blocking a roadway. Another in North Dakota — site of the Dakota Access pipeline showdown — would exonerate any motorist who, “while exercising reasonable care,” kills or injures a protester who is “intentionally obstructing vehicular traffic.” A Virginia law would increase the penalty for failing to disperse from a $500 fine to $2,500 and up to a year in jail. A proposed Michigan law — which died in the last legislative session but could be reintroduced — would authorize fines of $1,000 a day for individuals and $1,500 for unions if they “hinder or prevent by mass picketing” access to a business or private home.

Of course, protesters shouldn’t damage property or interfere with traffic, but laws already exist to penalize such behavior. Making them harsher and imprisoning people for political expression are the actions of a government afraid of its people, not of a mature democratic government. Trump and his acolytes need to be reminded of that.